Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Alaska - A Surprisingly Beautiful State

O.K., I have digressed enough for a little while (although I expect the administration will find ways to get my attention diverted back to politics again often enough). Back to talking about one of the things that made me want to write these silly blogs to begin with, the beauty, diversity and charm of this really wonderful country of ours. Over the past half century I have been able to travel a great deal. I have seen a a lot of the world and at some point I decided there was so much to see and do right here in the USA that I wanted to see what was in my own back yard. I became intrigued by the sheer size and the allure of this great land called America. My travels around the country were anything but organized. They resulted mostly from opportunities that life presented to go and see something new. Much of my traveling was done as a result of whatever profession my life held for me at the time. Wherever I went, however, I always managed to go see and experience as much as I could. Traveling that way meant that one week I might be in New York and the next month might easily find me in Reno. There was neither rhyme nor reason to it, just the random fancy of fate combined with a strong desire for adventure.

I have decided to recall some of these wonderful places I have seen and to bore you with them in this blog from time to time. Today's installment is about a place that has a unique kind of beauty. A place where time really is frozen and the majesty of nature is at her finest, Alaska.

My trip to Alaska was courtesy of the US Navy. I was a young "j.g." on a Destroyer, the USS Perkins (DD 877) and we spent a summer calling on various ports throughout the northern Pacific from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands. I confess that I was not real happy about the being sent to the frozen north Pacific as opposed to the exotic south Pacific, but those kinds of decisions are not left to "j.g.'s" who are generally considered just barely able to speak. As is the case many times in life, my apprehensions were entirely unfounded and there was plenty of excitement and adventure to experience.

We started in Seattle and had taken part in their annual Sea Fair, which was a lot of fun. We traveled directly north via the Inside Passage to Anchorage to take part in similar festivities there. Anchorage is at the inside edge of a body of water called a fjord. It is a kind of narrow ravine between tall lines of mountains, but is open to the sea at one end and is filled with water, not unlike a wide river. This particular fjord has a tide which can be as much as 30 feet! --A fact that was brought home to me in vivid manner the first night we were in Anchorage.

I went ashore in the evening to attend a dinner for the ships officers sponsored by a local business association. After the dinner several of us decided to check out the local 'watering holes'. We had a very good time and got a little carried away. To say we got drunk would be to understate it, kind of like saying that a hurricane got windy. The bars there are allowed to be open for 23 hours a day, closing for just one hour, usually from 5 to 6 am to allow the locals time for breakfast. We stayed until about 3 am when our cash situation dictated an end to the nights activities. We managed to return to the ship and that is when I discovered the significance of a 30 foot tide. When we had left earlier, the gangway extended straight out from the ship to the dock, but upon return the tide had gone out and our ship was now 20 feet lower than the dock. The gangway had become a ladder without rungs. We stood looking down at the deck below for several minutes before the ships Executive Officer announced that I, as the junior person present, should be the first one to attempt the climb down the gangway. I made a valiant effort to convince him that, as the senior person there, and therefor the leader, he should lead the charge and show us less experienced people how to do it. I lost the argument and found myself climbing down the gangway using the handrail as a ladder. I had gotten about half way when the Exec decided to make the attempt. He was not as lucky as I and within a few seconds he slipped and crashed to the deck. Happily for him, I was still climbing down below him and managed to break his fall, winding up flat out on the deck below with the 2 sailors on Quarterdeck Watch trying very hard not to laugh. My sacrifice was rewarded as I stood up when the Exec informed that is was now 04:30 and that Officers Call would be at 07:00 and "I believe you have watch at 08:00. Better go get a shower some sleep -and see to those scratches. Cuts get infected easily aboard ship". In case you are wondering, every officer that had been with us that night managed to make it to Officers Call that morning, although it was noted that everyone was speaking very softly.

While in Anchorage I was also invited to a retired Commanders home for a dinner of traditional Alaskan fare. It was one of the best private dinner parties I have ever attended. His home was a kind of ranch style built out on the side of a mountain with a view of the Alaskan wilderness to kill for. It was late August so the weather was clear and nice and the view stretched for a hundred miles. It is a sight you have to see for yourself but it just takes your breath away.

After leaving Anchorage we slipped out toward the Aleutians and steamed to the island of Kodiak. Kodiak has a very small population centered around a very busy fishing industry. In late August this industry turns it's attention to the Alaskan King Crab. As luck would have it, the Japanese fishing industry also likes Alaskan King Crab and several of their big fishing vessels had been violating the territorial waters making the locals crazy. Kodiak had one small Coast Guard Base and had complained about the Japanese fishing their waters. The Coast Guard had not yet been able to do anything about it when we arrived on the scene. We didn't know anything about this situation but the sight of a US Navy destroyer sent the Japanese fishing vessels flying and we were instantly made heroes in the little town, a fact we proceeded to take full advantage of.

Kodiak was originally settled by the Russians and the main religion on the island is still Greek Orthodox. The towns people gave us a car to use while in port so several of us drove out to see the church, which they say dates back to the late 1700's. When we got there were were greeted by a priest in long black robes. He was at least 6 feet 4 inches tall and had a beard that reached his waist. Around his neck was hanging a sliver cross that was a good 2 feet high and heavy as an anvil. He had on little round glasses so thick that they made his eye balls fill the lenses. He looked as if he had stepped out of a Hollywood movie set. He greeted us warmly and invited us to see the church. We were, however, asked not to take any pictures and he offered us postcards (at a discount, or course) instead. He was very proud of his church and took us out to the cemetery to see the headstones dating back to 1789. He also told us that during World War II the Japanese had attempted to invade Kodiak and that when they came to bomb the island he his congregation had met in group prayer and God had sent a thick fog so that most of the bombs fell harmlessly in the bay (of course, he did not mention that Kodiak is famous for it's fog which comes almost every morning year round). We thanked him for the tour by buying a good supply of his postcards and promising to send more of the ships crew out to see him.

Upon leaving Kodiak we had one more little adventure. It was the beginning of the crabbing season so the fishermen, anxious to show their gratitude to us, had offered the ship a large supply of fresh crab. Well, several of the officers got together and figureed we could make a killing buying the crab here and selling it when we returned to San Fransisco. So we pooled some money from the officers mess and bought 300 pounds of fresh Alaskan King Crab. Our 'get rich quick' scheme went awry, however, when the Captain discovered what we were up too and told us that we could not use the ships facilities for personal gain. We were told to consume or loose the crab. While this does not sound all that bad, you have to realize what eating 300 pounds of crab meant. We had crab for dinner, crab sandwiches for lunch and mid-rats (snacks on the midnight watch), crab omlettes for breakfast and crab cakes with the movie in the evenings. I got so sick of crab that it was 10 years before the thought of cracked crab did not make my stomach jump. The best laid plans often go astray.... how true, how true....

We left Kodiak and went to Sitka, Alaska to attend the dedication of a highway bridge with the Governor of Alaska and John Wayne. - I'll tell you about that next time.

No comments: